Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 4.

THE brothers looked pale under their brown skins in the ashen light of the dawn.

But they had lost sheep like other folks, and so like other folks were pitied as they went back into the Lastra to get a mouthful of bread, after the sickly vigil of the night.

Bruno was an unwedded man, and could bear misfortune; but Lippo was a man early married, and having six young children to clamour round his soup‐pot, and fight for the crusts of bread. He was pointed out amongst the crowd of sufferers, and was one of those who were pitied the most, and who was sure to get a good portion of the alms‐giving and public relief.

“Give Bruno a cup of wine and a crust, Nita,” said he, going up the stairs into the house of his wife. He lived there with her because her father, who was a cobbler, owned the place, and he himself best liked the life of the Lastra. The wife, too, having been a cobbler’s daughter and grand‐daughter, had been always used to see life from the half‐door of the workshop; she would not become a mere contadina, hoeing and weeding and plaiting and carrying dung in a broad‐leaved hat and a russet gown — not she, were it ever so; and Anita was one those strong and fortunate women who always get their own way by dint of their power to make everyone wretched who crosses them.

“Leave me to speak,” said Lippo, with a glance of meaning to his brother.

It was five in the morning, very cold, and still dusky. Anxiety was allayed, since the wind blew from the east, and the waters were sinking, though slowly.

Nita, who had been up all night on the watch, like the rest of the women, was boiling coffee in a tin‐pot, and fanning the charcoal. The chil‐ dren lay about as they chose on the floor. None of them had been put to bed, since at any moment they might have had to run for their lives.

Bruno looked round for Pippa’s child. He did not see it.

“An awful night,” said Lippo, kicking the pig out of a doze. “They do say the Vecchio bridge is down in Florence, and that the jewellers could not get out in time. I wish the gold and silver and stones would drift down here. All the Grève country is swamped. St. Guisto sticks up on his tower like a masthead. The cattle are drowned by herds. Whole stacks of wheat are against the piles, making hungry souls’ mouths water; rotted and ruined; fine last year’s grain; the good God is bitter‐hard sometimes. Where is the baby I brought you last night, my woman?”

Nita pointed with her charcoal fan; her coffee was on the point of boiling.

The brothers looked where she pointed, to a nest of hay close to the hen and her chickens. The child lay there sound asleep, with his little naked limbs curled up; and close against him was Toto, a yearling child also.

The elder brother turned away suddenly, and his body shook a little.

“You have never dried your clothes, Bruno,” said his sister‐in‐law. “What a baby a man is without a wife. Drink that, it is hot as hot. And what did you bring me that baby for — you and Lippo? You know whose brat it is, I suppose, and look out for the reward? I thought so, or I would not have given it house‐room. Toto is more work than enough, so masterful as he is — and so ravenous.”

“Nay,” said Lippo, as with a sheepish apology for his weakness. “I know nothing of whose brat it is — I was just sorry for it; left in the soaking fields there; and I picked it up as I should pick up a lame lamb. What do you think of it, my dearest? does it look like a poor child or a rich one, eh? Women are quick to judge.”

The black brows of Nita lowered in wrath.

“Mercy of heaven! Who would have to do with such dolts as men? Just because the child was there you pick it up, never thinking of all the hungry mouths half‐fed at home! Shame on you. You are an unnatural brute. You would starve your own to nourish a stranger!”

“Nay, sweetest Nita!” murmured Lippo, coaxingly. “On such a night — and a child taken down by flood, too — not a living soul but would have done as I did. And who knows but he may be some rich father’s child, and make our fortunes? Any way, the township will give us credit, and he can go to the Innocenti to‐morrow if we find no gain in him. Look what his things betoken.”

“Oh, his things are rough‐spun enough, and vile as can be,” said his wife, in a fuming fury. “And would a rich man’s child be out on flood? It is only the poor brats that the weather finds loose for it to play antics with; the child is a beggar’s son, and this thing linked round his neck by a little string, is a thing you get at the fairs for a copper‐bit.”

The two men looked together at the locket that she held to them; it was of base‐metal — a little poor round trumpery plaything. On it there was the one word in raised letters of Signa, and inside a curl of soft light hair. That was all. They could none of them read, so the letters on the metal told them nothing. They stooped together over the sleeping child.

He was pretty and well made; he lay quite naked in the hay, and beside brown Toto looked like one of the little marble children of old Mino. His lashes and his brows were black, but over his forehead hung little rings of soft, fair, crumpled hair.

Bruno turned away.

“She used to look just like that when she was a little child,” he muttered to himself.

Lippo glanced round to see if his wife heard. But she was busy with the hen, who had got into a barrel of rice, and was eating treble her own price at the market at one meal.

“The brat must go,” said she, turning and flogging the hen away. “As for a chance that it is a rich man’s child, that is all rubbish. You make your bread with next year’s corn. Chances like that are old wives’ tales. What we have to do is to feed six hungry stomachs. You were a fool to bring it here at all. But to dream one should keep it! Holy Mary!”

“Holy Mary would say, keep it,” said Bruno, munching his crust.

“Maybe it is your own, Bruno. Those that hid can find,” said his sister‐in‐law sharply. “The child shall pack to‐day. I shall go and tell them at the guard‐house. Toto is more than enough, and as for that locket, you can get such trash as that at nay fair for a couple of figs. That goes for nothing.”

“Well, well, keep the poor baby till noon, and I will see what the Curato says. It is always well to see what he says,” her husband answered her hurriedly, and afraid of the gathering storm on Bruno’s face.

Bruno was passionate, tempestuous, and weak, and the quieter, subtler brother ruled him with ease whilst seeming to obey. But for turning the baby of dead Pippa’s to public maintenance — Lippo had a foreboding in him that in this matter his brother would be too strong for him.

He hurried away out of pretext of labour awaiting them in the inundated country, not without misgiving that the darkest suspicions as to the fatherhood of the foundling were awakening in the jealous soul of his wife.

They went straight to the edge of the river, and got out their old black boat, with its carved prow and tricoloured tiller, and pulled down the current of the now quiet water to see with the rest what could help so save from the flotsam and jetsam of the flood. Whole districts lay under water, and the river was full of dead cats and dogs, drowned sheep, floating pipkins and wine‐casks, bales of hay, carcases of cows. and broken bits of furniture from many a ruined farmstead and peasant’s hut laid low.

“Listen,” said the elder brother suddenly, when the boat was fairly out from the bank, and with his hooked pole he drew in a spinning‐wheel with its bank of flax drenched like a drowned girl’s hair. “Listen to me, Lippo. Pippa’s son must not go to charity. Do you hear?”

“I hear. But we are poor men, and Pippa was —”

“That is neither here nor there,” said Bruno, with his dark brows meeting. “She never asked alms of us, nor house‐room, nor did anything except to go to her death just as sheep tumble over a rock. The baby must not go to the parish. We did faulty enough — letting her go down flood with never an office of church said over her. And who knows — who knows — she might not be quite dead, after all.”

“Nita will not keep him — that is sure,” said the younger quickly. “Look, that is Barcelli’s old red cow. You may know her by the spot on her side.”

“Would she keep him if she were paid?”

Lippo’s eyes lighted with joy, but he bent a grave face over his pole as he raked in a floating oil‐flask by its wicker coat.

“I doubt if she would. She has a deal of trouble with Toto. And who is there to pay, pray? We know no more than the cow there who the man was — you know that.”

“I will pay.”

“You!”

“Yes; I will pay the child’s keep.”

“Holy angels! And you who were for ever at words and blows with Pippa, and stabbed at her even for being too gay!”

“I will pay,” said Bruno.

Lippo rowed on in silence some moments.

“How much?” he asked at last.

“I will give you half all I get.”

Lippo’s white teeth showed themselves in a sudden smile. His brother gained a good deal in corn and oil and beans and hay and wine, being on good land, and being a man who worked and got the uttermost out of the soil that he shared with his master, and Lippo was often pinched by his father‐in‐law Baldo the cobbler, and half famished by his wife, and was a true son of the soil, and knew the worth of a hundredth part of a copper coin as well as any man between sea and mountain.

“Half all you get, and we to keep the child?” he said absently, and as with reluctance. “But what can we say to Nita?”

“You are never at a loss for good lying, Lippo.”

Lippo smiled; his vanity was flattered.

“I never lie to Nita. She always finds one out. Only in the matter of Pippa’s son I hid the truth to please you. She never would nurse the child if she guessed. Bust as for making her keep him, say what one will, it will be impossible — impossible, my dear.”

“It must be,” said Bruno, withdrawing his hand from the tiller and bringing it down with violence on the boat’s side, while his eyes flashed with blue fire as the lightning flashes most summer nights over the blue hills of his own Signa. “It must be. I will pay. I will give you half I get. Good harvests — you know what that is. But Pippa’s child shall not go to parish while I have an arm to drive a plough through the ground or to guide over the field. Settle it with your wife your own way. But Pippa’s child shall grow up amongst us.”

“Dear Bruno, to please you I will try,” said gentle Lippo with a sigh. “But we have brats too many in the house, and you know what Nita’s ‘Nay’ can be.”

“Nay or yea, the child stays,” said Bruno.

“The half of everything,” murmured Lippo, as he bent to his oars and passed by a dog howling on the top of its floating kennel to reach his pole to a butcher’s basket of meat that was tossing amongst the rubbish.

But Bruno, having the tiller, pushed first to reach the dog.

“It is only a cur,” said Lippo.

Bruno pulled the dog into the boat.

In the Lastra, and in the town, and in all the country round or near Signa, the brothers were known as well as the mass‐bells of the churches. The Signa people thought that Bruno the contadino was a bad man enough, ready with his knife and often in a brawl, and too often seen at fairs and with other men’s wives on feast‐days. Lippo they liked and respected, and everybody spoke him fair; and he would keep the peace most beautifully when men got angry in the streets before his house‐door.

They were both handsome men, and could neither of them read, and believed in their priest and their paternoster, and had never been beyond the mountains around Signa, except now and then — Bruno with his bullocks, and Lippo in a donkey‐cart to buy leather — down the Valdarno into the Lily City.

Bruno lived on the wild hillside, amongst the thyrne and the myrtle and the gorze and the grass‐cropping sheep and the ever‐singing nightingales. Lippo dwelt down in the street, doing as little as he could, and by preference nothing, in the smell of his wife’s frying and in the sound of her father’s little hammer; rowing out his boat when there was any chance for it to pay, and seeing after the few sheep that the shoemaker kept above the bridge. They had been born within a year of one another — sons of peasants and workers in the fields. Bruno stayed on the old land where his fathers had had rights of the soil uncounted generations. Lippo had loitered down love‐making into the Lastra, and had married very early the daughter of well‐to‐do old Baldo.

There had been several sons after them. Two had been killed as soldiers, and others had died in infancy by various strokes of evil chance; and the youngest of them all had been Pippa — Pippa, whose body was gone out on the flood to the sea with never a prayer said over her. Beautiful, fierce, wayward, wilful, fire‐mouthed Pippa, who had run over the hills like a lizard, and who had had saucy words on her tongue as a rose has its thorns, and who had had all Signa gazing after her for her beauty when she had walked singing like a cherub in the wake of the banners of the church.

Not that she had ever cared much for the church — poor Pippa.

She had always been quarrelsome and self‐willed and headstrong; and had flouted her lovers, and been petulant to her own hindrance, and as wild as a hawk, and provoking — yes, provoking, past the endurance of any man who was a brother and nothing more. She would never sit quiet and spin; she would never keep her eyes on her tress of straw as other girls did; if she milked the cow she would upset the pail just out of wantonness, and would laugh and dance to see their rage when she let the pigs run in amongst her brother’s plot of green peas. Yes, certainly, she was provoking; a bad girl, even though loving at heart; no one was to blame that she had gone away without a word and come back so, with a child at her breast, to find her death the night of the flood.

A self‐willed foolish girl and with wrong‐doing ingrained in her — as for patience, who could be very patient with a woman that let the pigs in amongst your peas just when green peas fetched their weight in silver? And then she had such a tongue too, the little shrew — true, she did not bear malice, and would not growl, growl, growl for hours together as Nita would, and Nita’s mother, thinking it the only way to manage men; true, she was a generous soul, and would let a beggar have her dinner, though meals were meagre on the hills; and when one had beaten her till she was blue she would not tell, but say she had fallen from the ladder trimming the vines, or that the bees had stung her. Still a wilful, quarrelsome, pettish thing; no man could be blamed for her ill‐hap nor for her end. So Lippo said to himself when his brother had gone up to the hills, and he himself left his boat to go down the narrow street homeward, pondering on Pippa’s child and on what he should say to Nita.

As he went up the stairs he settled the lie to his mind’s content, and entered the room looking with his fairest faith out of his clear brown eyes.

“I am going to be frank with you, Nita,” he said, and then he sat down and lied so prettily, that if there be a Father of Lies he must quite have rejoiced to hear him.

Nita listened as well as a woman can listen — that is, interrupting twenty times and getting up to do some irrelevant thing twice twenty.

“Bruno’s son!” she cried at last.

“Hush! The children will hear,” said Lippo. “It is as I tell you. Only Bruno must not know that you know, because he is so afraid that red‐haired Roma whom he is courting should hear of it. But you see why I closed with him, Nita. It will be a good thing for us. We can eat like fatting pigs off Bruno’s land. Nothing to prevent us. And it is hill land, you know, and his share comes to a good bit, taking fair weather and foul. And then, besides that, we shall have credit in the Lastra, for Bruno never will say a word, and the curato and all the place may as well think the child a foundling as not. A good deed smells sweet in the neighbours’ nostrils, and a good name is like a blest palm. We must tell your father, or he will grumble at the seventh mouth. But nobody else need know. The brat will grow up with the others, and we shall seem kind, that is all.”

“To think of its being Bruno’s!” cried Nita, with a clap of her big brown hands. “Did I not say so, now? Did I not jeer him as he looked at it asleep? Oh — oh! Who can deceive me? Never you try, Lippo, more!”

“You can see through a millstone,” replied Lippo, with an embrace of her. “Only an ass can ever seek to blind you, and that is why I told you the truth, though Bruno would have screened it. He is so afraid of the creature he goes to now ever knowing — you understand.”

“The child will be a bother,” said Anita, remembering the kicks and cuffs with whose best administration she could scarce manage to keep the peace amongst her brood or their hands ever out of the soup‐pot.

“Oh, no,” said Lippo, shrugging his shoulders, “where there are six there may as well be seven. He will tumble up with the others. We are to have half of all Bruno gets, and I can guess to a stalk, you know, what an acre of wheat is worth, or what an olive or a fig tree bears. No fattore would outwit me. I was not bred out on the fields for nothing. Half of everything, you know, Nita. That will mean a good deal in good seasons. I am very hungry, carina. Could you not fry something in oil, nice and tempting for one? An artichoke, now, or a blackbird?”

Nita grumbled at the extravagance, but being in a good humour went downstairs and across the way and brought over some artichokes and fried them and ate them with her husband, the children being sent to make dust pies and castles in the sun on the stones below, old Baldo keeping an eye on them over his half‐door.

Lippo and his wife ate their artichokes, and drank a little wine with them.

Pippa’s son cried unnoticed in his nest of hay, and sobbed out his one little word for mother, which was like the moan of a little unfledged bird left in the snow.

“We will bring him up to help himself,” said Lippo, with his mouth filled with the fried eggs and oil.

 

The child sobbed on, and felt for his mother’s breast, and only had his small soft rosy hands torn with the thorns and pricked with the burrs and briars of the sun‐dried hay.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06